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'Idiot' might make some queasy, but maybe that's a good thing


All the seats were assigned, but the audience appeared to divide into distinct camps within minutes of the start of Saturday afternoon’s performance of “American Idiot” at Reynolds Hall inside The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

I imagine that’s just the way Green Day leader Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer planned it when they collaborated on a musical based on the life and hits of the iconic American punk band.

The crowd members were either trying their best to nod their heads to the driving rock beat or tensing their shoulders like reluctant riders on a breakaway roller coaster.

Obviously, not all those riders were strapped in. A few left not long after the first fusillade of epithets punctuated the air. Others departed about the time an actor playing a soldier amputee was wheeled onto the stage. In my row alone, three people slipped out side doors.

What were the offended hoping for, “The Sound of Music” updated? Although Green Day is capable of touching sentiment (such as on “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” it’s mostly an in-your-face rock band that escaped its Berkeley garage and rose to superstardom without losing its ability to sneer at convention and stick it to the Man. (As an aside, you are probably the Man, or at least a fool for the Man. I know this not because I am the Review-Journal’s hip, new music critic, but because I have a teenage daughter who has worn out an armload of Green Day CDs during our daily commutes. Amelia and niece Janet gave the rock opera high praise.)

The set was like an enormous MTV clubhouse in a really bad neighborhood with flat-screen televisions beaming iconic images and rebellious messages along with a care-worn sofa and unmade bed. I loved it when the scaffold tipped over and was transformed into a bus that took the band across country.

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in the storyline. There’s no shortage of youth rebellion clichés and object lessons. Did I mention the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll? It’s as if Armstrong took a can-opener to his head and let us look inside — with lots of great choreography and singing thrown in.

Some of the voices were stronger than others. A few of the scenes were filled with so much youthful hand-wringing that they seemed a little corny, but overall the show was incredible. The music was loud and proud and true to its roots. Green Day is good at sticking a thumb in the eye of convention and lamenting its generation’s fate. Its lyrics can be raw and brutally self-revealing.

Officials at The Smith Center will no doubt receive some complaints from those who were offended by the music, message, broken-home bitterness, anti-war imagery, the simulated sex act, faux heroin use and the dropping of all those F-bombs. But the scolds should lighten up.

The arts center coordinators deserve praise for booking the edgy Tony Award-winning musical. It was a brave choice.

In summing up the situation on stage, a character announces, “This is my rage. This is my town. This is my country. This is my life.”

Despite its iconoclastic reputation, Green Day doesn’t make trouble. It merely interprets it, and calls out a lot of hypocrites along the way.

“American Idiot” is hardly subversive. But if its depiction of troubled youth and punk-rock dreams makes the Man uncomfortable, I say let him squirm.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.